The night artists: Nashville’s loyal newspaper pressmen face their final deadline

Sam White puts plates on a press before he starts printing the Thanksgiving Day paper Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, at The Tennessean in Nashville. Newspapers have been printed at 1100 Broadway since 1937.

(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)

It is the day before Thanksgiving, and deep inside The Tennessean building on Broadway, a great mechanical beast has begun to stir. The machine is fed 32 tons of recycled paper from spools half as large as a car and slurps up black ink piped in from 4,200-gallon vats in a basement two floors below.

The stale air stinks like roofing tar. The floor is slippery with a faint inky dew. A blue wall of machinery, as large and loud as a passing train, starts to churn and hiss, stamping aluminum against rubber and rubber against paper until a ribbon of printed pages flies by in a blur.

After a chaotic moment, the beast spits out its first newspaper. Then another. Then another. Then dozens and hundreds and thousands more, piled together on a narrow conveyor belt that leads into a soundproofed room where six pressmen in ink-stained work shirts wait anxiously.

They grab copies and flip through the pages, checking for defects.

“OK, guys,” shouts Mark Epling, a longtime supervisor. “This is our last chance to get it right.”

This is The Tennessean pressroom, where for more than 80 years a few dozen anonymous press operators have pursued the tireless, underappreciated and impossible goal of printing the perfect page. Some of these pressmen have been here for decades, printing more than a billion newspapers over careers that will soon come to a humble end.

But, for now, the work continues as diligently as ever. Printing begins as the sun sets and runs until after midnight, then starts again around dawn and ends at lunch. When the work is finally done, three presses have printed not only The Tennessean but also The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Daily News Journal, The Leaf-Chronicle, The Huntsville Times, The Columbia Daily Herald and several other smaller publications.

The mantra here is clear: Print it fast and print it pretty. Journalists might get all the bylines and all the credit, the pressmen say, but nobody is going to read their stories if the paper is late or ugly.

“The way I see it, I’m an artist,” said Wayne Dale, 62, who has worked in the pressroom since he took a part-time job in high school in 1972. As he talks, Dale preps a giant paper roll for printing, and has little time to stop and chat. A deadline looms.

“If we print 200,000 of these, that’s 200,000 people who get to see my work,” Dale adds. “What other artist in Nashville can say that?”

After 82 years, the presses will stop

Newspapers have been printed at 1100 Broadway since 1937 when a deal between The Tennessean and its then-competitor, the Nashville Banner, put both newspapers in the same building. Presses ran day and night for decades, and although the Banner went out of business in 1998, The Tennessean soon swelled to fill the empty space, with circulation rising to about 300,000 copies on Sundays.

Those were the boom times, which now feel like a distant memory to the handful of pressmen who remain. Print circulation has plummeted since the heyday of the late ‘90s, and the pressroom has become a decreasingly essential cog in newspaper operations as more and more readers have shifted to digital products.

Soon, printing of The Tennessean in Nashville will halt altogether.

The Tennessean will move from its longtime building in May, leaving the old, worn behemoth to be consumed by Gulch redevelopment. The newsroom will relocate down the street to the upper floors of a West End high-rise, but printing will be shifted to the Knoxville News Sentinel and the (Louisville) Courier-Journal, fellow Gannett newspapers. The Tennessean’s presses will be scrapped for parts and left to crumble when the building is demolished by a new owner.

About 30 pressroom workers will lose what for many is the only job they have known. Many don’t have enough savings to retire, so they will seek new work in a new industry. Some hope to stay in the printing business — packages or advertisements or even beer  cans — but not newspapers.

“I’ve spent my whole life on deadline,” said Epling, forcing a smile as finished papers are loaded into trucks at the end of a shift. “Now it is time to try something else.”

The pressroom’s final deadline is still weeks away, but the Thanksgiving paper was a melancholy milestone of the impending end. The Thanksgiving edition is the single largest newspaper of the year, so the work is reminiscent of better days when print circulation was bigger, page counts were higher and press jobs felt forever secure.

“You can’t just bring anyone in off the streets and expect them to handle these machines,” said James Parnell, a pressroom manager who has worked at The Tennessean for 36 years. “It’s a race against the clock every night. This is a real craft, and it’s a shame it’s going away.”

An imperfect art on a daily deadline

Joey Prince spent most of the summer of 1999 sleeping on his mother’s couch to save money, but he still couldn’t afford another semester at Middle Tennessee State University.

And so a neighbor offered to hook him up with a job in newspaper printing. Before long, Prince found himself as a rookie among grizzled men who spent every night wrestling with finicky, powerful machines. He quickly discovered that the news never took a night off and that the press would rip the skin off your fingertips if you got sloppy. It was a glimpse of a “hard life,” Prince said, and he didn’t plan to stay.

“At first, it wasn’t something I was passionate about, and there were times I was looking for an exit,” said Prince, 39, who has now spent nearly two decades working in a pressroom. “I don’t know how many birthdays I’ve spent in here, and so many holidays.

“But I love art — and this is an art.”

This is a story you hear over and over in the pressroom: young rudderless men who wandered into a job decades ago and found a career instead. The pay was good, the work was steady, and overtime was plentiful, they say, but in the end they stayed for the odd, addictive satisfaction of art on a deadline.

That was what happened in March 1974 when Richard Salmon, a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie, walked into The Tennessean in desperate need of a job — any job.

Somebody in the pressroom took a chance on him, letting him work a midday shift printing the Nashville Banner. And when the paper was done and Salmon was getting ready to leave, a supervisor asked if he wanted to stick around for the night shift and help print The Tennessean, too.

That was 44 years ago, and Salmon, 61, is now the longest full-time employee in the pressroom. When asked why he never left, Salmon grabs a freshly printed copy of The Daily News Journal off the press and points to a holiday advertisement wrapped around the front page. It shows a snowman sitting on a sled against the backdrop of a starry sky.

To appreciate it, you have to think like a pressman.

The blue lines are crisp. White type pops against a thin black shadow. The snowman’s orange nose is a precise mix of yellow and magenta ink, stamped on top of each other thousands of times.

“Making it look good,” Salmon said, pausing to enunciate every word as if they were fragile. “That’s why I’m still here.”

Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at brett.kelman@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.

Fast facts about the pressroom

• The Tennessean pressroom has been printing newspapers since 1937, but Nashville printing is scheduled to end in March. It takes a lot to print a newspaper.

• The Tennessean, USA TODAY and The New York Times are printed on two Goss Colorliner printing presses that were installed in 1990. The Daily News Journal and other smaller papers are printed on a Man Roland Uniset 70, installed in 2002.

• The average Tennessean Sunday edition requires 47,000 pounds of paper and 106 gallons of black, yellow, magenta and cyan ink.

• The pressroom uses about 1,100 aluminum printing plates and 43,000 pounds of paper per day for all the newspapers it publishes.

• That amounts to 165,000 miles of paper per year, which is long enough to wrap around the Earth more than six times.

Gore vs. Bush: Election night madness

In The Tennessean pressroom, few evenings hold the chaotic legacy of election night in 2000.

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were mired in what would become one of the most notorious elections in modern American history. The race for the presidency was so close that the pressroom had no choice but to prepare two sets of aluminum printing plates — one saying Gore had won, one saying Bush had won. At one point, the press operators witnessed the most fundamental newspaper cliche, which almost never really happens in real life: Someone burst into the pressroom shouting “Stop the presses!”

“We must have stopped and started half a dozen times,” said Mark Epling, a longtime pressroom supervisor. “It was a wild night, just like something off of television.”

In the end, the newspaper published the next day with a front-page story saying the race was too close to call. The election would ultimately require recounts and court battles, and Bush would emerge the victor, becoming the 43rd president of the United States. Gore would leave the White House to focus on climate change and environmental advocacy.

But what about the plates? That’s a good question. Epling and other pressmen said the aluminum plates reporting a Gore victory — a unique souvenir from an alternate history — vanished after election night.

© 2019 www.tennessean.com. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The original story can be found here: https://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2019/02/11/nashville-tennessean-newspaper-presses-goodbye-print-journalism/2028786002/?fbclid=IwAR2Lr-5BoqA_pnwa-Kv-sShFkSh9mb3DioS5H_v1bvH56i-7FLNkZ9rJgYk